An Interview with Sérgio Roberto de Oliveira
Sérgio Roberto de Oliveira has seventy-five works in his catalogue. The interview that follows is the fifth in a series that began ten years ago. We talked in Portuguese at his recording studio in Rio de Janeiro on August 25, 2010, prior to the composer’s 40th birthday.
TM: Its already more than a year since the last time we talked, when you were a visiting professor at Duke University, a Mellon artist-in-residence, with quite a number of pieces written since then. Lets start by talking about a piece from 2008, which will be premiered in the near future, Espelhos [Mirrors] for vibraphone and piano. I imagine that the idea of the mirrors comes from the fact that the two instruments are almost, but not quite the same. The vibraphonist calls his instrument a keyboard, and the pianist likewise, but they are reflections of each other in a distorted mirror. Is that the case?
SRO: Exactly, a very simple and obvious idea. Ana Leticia Barros commissioned the piece for her duo with Marina Spoladore, and the first thing that occurred to me was the similarities between the two instruments. And I think from the visual point of view two women playing is something beautiful. In some of my pieces I have worked with scenic, dramatic issues, and this is something which I tried to work with here. In fact, the piece is very visual. I put the vibraphone exactly in front of the piano the arrangement of the instruments on stage must be this way and when the piano moves to the upper register, the vibraphone goes to the lower register, and vice versa. Sometimes I play with one player going in one direction, and the other in the opposite. At one point I ask the vibraphonist to play with a bow, and the pianist with mallets inside the piano. I make parallels between the two instruments, and this is the principal idea for the piece everything is built on this. The harmonies, and the melodies which appear, all stem from this idea. I tried to take the size of the vibraphone, the number of notes that it has, and construct a proportion with the number of notes on the piano, so that each interval has a corresponding interval on the other instrument, so that the physical motion would be similar when the players were moving in one direction or the other. I work with extremes, basically so that this idea will be clear. There is a point at which the two are both drumming on the sides of their instruments. A rather visual piece
TM: Of course you have another piece with mirrors Mot pour Laura, which has palindromes, mirrors in time. This new piece does not have palindromes.
SRO: No its about visual mirrors.
TM: Mirrors in the moment, rather than mirrors in time.
TM: Please say a little about the artist. They are quite young, and both have quite a strong presence in the contemporary music scene. How old are they, if I can ask discreetly?
SRO: I dont know exactly, but I think that they are around thirty.
TM: So that they already belong to the next generation after your own.
SRO: They are very active I wrote an earlier piece for Ana Leticia, Mar do Norte, which was very successful. She loved the piece, and I really enjoyed her interpretation. She premiered it at the Panorama of Contemporary Music at UFRJ, and then played it again on the series of Preludio 21. I was very interested to work with her again she is a very serious and very talented musician. Marina Spoladore has stood out in her career as a pianist if I am not mistaken she works with the ensemble PianOrquestra.
TM: I know that already at the 2007 Bienal she played in dozens of pieces. I suppose that your work with Preludio 21 in producing new music concerts has made it possible for the next generation to have much more experience in playing contemporary music for the public.
SRO: I think so. In the last twelve years there has been much more contemporary music happening in Rio, and in Brazil in general. Not just due to my work, but that of many others as well. I am now producing GNU (the new music ensemble of UniRio), and I can see how many opportunities they have now. I remember the first time that Preludio 21 played in the series at the Salão Dourado, with people thinking, a group of composers, contemporary music, in this space? These days, no one thinks twice about programming contemporary music for any concert series.
TM: Of course there was a contemporary music group already at UFRJ, and GNU at UniRio is something more recent.
SRO: We always had contemporary music in Rio. What changed is that previously it was much more limited to spaces within the university scene and the contemporary music ghetto. You had a contemporary music series, with only contemporary music. Or a biannual festival of contemporary music. But to have this situation where contemporary music is present in series which have every kind of music
TM: And almost every week.
SRO: This is the great difference, something which was our goal. I dont want people to put us in a box I want them to see us as the Nepomucenos, the Padre José Maurícios, the Villa-Lobos of today.
TM: Lets talk about a playful title for one of your works Pros lados de Piauí, entre a Turquia e Alemanha. The usual non-Brazilian has no clue that Piauí exists, and even in Brazil, Piauí is a bit of a joke, just because it is a place that is rural, hot, distant .for a Carioca, Piauí could be between Turkey and Germany.
SRO: Thats not exactly it. In fact, I wrote this piece for the Orchestra of Soloists of Rio de Janeiro. This piece comes from a period when I was in doubt about whether I would continue to compose or not I was having a serious crisis of creativity. On the trip that I made in late 2007 to the USA and Europe I took with me a book by Ariano Suassuna, O Romance da Pedra do Reino, and this book was very useful because it showed me how much music I still had to compose, how much Brazilian music I had to contribute, and this title is a direct quote from the book. Its interesting, because Genisa, who was my nanny, and continues to work in our household until today, is from Paraíba, and she is always saying things like this. She says, and I heard this all the time when I was growing up, When I lived in Campina Grande, over there near Chile or Then I moved to Brazil She was not joking when she talked that way she talked that way because she had no idea where these places were. In the book there is a passage with a character who immediately reminded me of Genisa, and precisely because they ask her, Where is Lorena? if I am not mistaken somewhere in Europe. And she answers Oh, that is very far up near Piauí, between Turkey and Germany.
So the music comes from the idea of exploring this picturesque unawareness of the nordestino from the interior, of the Brazilian in general from the interior, for whom Turkey, Germany, even Rio de Janeiro, or Piauí, if you are in the state of Paraíba, are places that are so far, that would require such a long journey on foot, or riding a mule, that there is really no difference between them. The music depicts this at the beginning I work with augmented seconds to suggest Turkey, there is a twelve-tone row to present the Germans,
TM: and music from the Northeast .
SRO: theres a frevo, and even an American walking bass its a big mixture of cultures, in order to represent this mixed-up, confused thinking of the Brazilian.
TM: You mentioned the Orchestra of Soloists, which is not something that you find just anywhere. You have orchestras, you have soloists, you have chamber music, but an orchestra of soloists, a group with one of each instrument, is something different. You have to take care not to have problems with balance. Could you speak a little about this ensemble?
SRO: Its a very successful group, which has brought together very fine musicians. There are indeed problems with balances, particularly with the strings, which are weak in comparison with the tutti, but since the musicians are so good, they have been well-able to deal with the issues of balance. In spite of the fact that the group has an artistic director, all of the musicians have a voice, and I think that this contributes to the equilibrium. The musicians are very experienced our friend Rudi Garrido [flute] is one of the musicians, Maico Lopes [trumpet], Philip Davies, percussionist musicians that are used to playing in large ensembles, and to playing chamber music as well.
TM: You have worked extensively with commercial music, which does not have these issues with regard to the use of amplification and sound design to resolve these problems of balance. I have the impression that in New York, for example, new music ensembles have already moved more in the direction of amplification, but that this is as yet unheard of in Brazil.
SRO: Yes, to a very small extent. There is considerable prejudice and resistance, which I think is in part justified, for two reasons: the first is that we have a level of technique that is not very high. I am talking about a sound technician who knows the ways that things should sound, or about equipment that is really good quality in this area.
TM: The people who work in amplification only have experience with commercial music, and not with classical music.
SRO: Exactly. Things have to sound differently. It is always a problem. Another part of the problem is that musicians are not accustomed to playing this way. A period of apprenticeship is necessary.
TM: For the flutist, for example, to have to direct the sound right at the microphone, and never deviate,
TM: has a serious effect on the level of spontaneity. But if you dont do this, there is a constant shift in the sound perceived by the audience.
SRO: Its interesting that for the second concert that Preludio 21 did at the Theatro Municipal
TM: in around 2005 or 2006 .
SRO: we miked everyone. I was concerned to be able to maintain a good balance, and I had to mike the guitar, no matter what. We had soprano, flute, marimba, and guitar. I thought it would be interesting to mike everyone. The musicians were young, except for the percussionist, it was a huge space and the result was very good. Its something that almost never happens.
TM: The guitar is the only instrument that you regularly hear amplified at classical concerts.
SRO: Its a question of habit, and its something that has to do with the level of contact between these two universes the technician has to understand how the instruments should sound, and the artistic directors have to understand how the equipment works. Without communication the problem is not going to be resolved.
TM: Lets talk about your piece from last year, Ciclo, for two flutes and piano, which you wrote for GNU. The flutists were Maria Carolina Cavalcanti and Marcio Angelotti.
SRO: And the pianist was Antonio Ziviani.
TM: You already have various cycles you have cycles combining various pieces, such as the cycle for two flute, which itself begins with a piece that is a cycle, Circus Brasilis. Why did you choose this title for this piece?
SRO: In fact it was a suggestion that I received. It was for a concert for Preludio 21, and they decided that they would play trios. They suggested that it be for two flutes and piano, since they knew about my relationship with music for flute. And so I said to Maria Carolina, who would be one of the flutists, choose a title for me. And she did.
TM: Did the piece come before the title, or afterwards?
SRO: The title came first.
TM: So the title gave you the concept for the piece.
SRO: Exactly. I composed the piece while I was still in the US, at Duke, and it is a little love story for two flutes, something that is a recurring theme in my flute duos. I talk about the fact that often people are not synchronized with each other each person is at a different moment.
TM: In a different part of the cycle with respect to love.
SRO: Precisely. Or with respect to life.
TM: One person becomes infatuated, and the other takes a while to respond.
SRO: Not just that. Often, there is a person who is not special for you, and later comes to be special. Beyond this, there is the idea that everything has an end, everything has a beginning and an end, and when it ends you begin something else, another cycle. The structure is something I have used in various pieces, which is the repetition of themes. Each one of the instruments has its own theme, but each theme is a different size, and each theme has a different cycle. This generates a sort of kaleidoscope.
TM: Its a rather medieval technique, because often you have in medieval music these rhythmic cycles which only coincide now and then.
SRO: This is precisely the idea. So the music has all these little stories I describe the two flutists as two lovers, and the piano is Time, or the Universe, or Nature that which is static, because the pianos theme is the one which is least modified. In the middle of piece, in the middle of so many failed meetings, there is a solo for Flute II, a very sad and lyrical solo, and when he finishes the solo, without any hope whatsoever, on a very low note, Flute I comes, plays the same note two octaves above, and they begin to play a beautiful and synchronized counterpoint. I was inspired by a lyric by Tom Jobim which says and it became so cold that the dawn appeared. And I thought, it became so beautiful that the dawn appeared. The counterpoint ends on a perfect fifth, and the piano enters once more. As if Time had stopped in order to listen, and then began again. And its a tango.
TM: You mentioned before we began the interview that the title Jacarandá comes from the name of the ensemble, so I imagine that in this case the title did not generate the piece.
SRO: But in fact it does. The performing group is a trio called Trio Jacarandá. At the same time I have a series of pieces named after trees, so I thought it would be interesting if this piece were to be another of my trees. The movements are called Roots, Trunk, and Branches. As we know, the growth of various things in nature is according to the Fibonacci series, and so the whole piece is structured according to the Fibonacci series. The first movement is two minutes long, the second is three minutes long, and the third is five minutes long.
TM: How as a composer do you manage to make music that communicates, but at the same time fits into these mathematical games?
SRO: That is where you find the art in composing. You know that my music is very rigorous in terms of structures, but seeks to communicate at the same time. It is certainly true that my structure can sometimes loosen a bit to make room for the expression, but this is, in general, not something that I like to do. In the case of this piece, there is the question of durations which has to do with this, and at the same time with the titles of the movements. I think that you can achieve expression within any structure.
TM: Please say a little about the commissioning ensemble. The combination of clarinet, horn and piano already connotes composers like Reinecke, Brahms those Middle-European Romantic guys
SRO: It is always interesting for us as composers to work with established ensembles such as string quartets, a group such as this The Trio Jacarandá in particular is a happy combination of three very talented musicians Thiago Tavares, Waleska Beltrami, and Sara Cohen, who is one of the most important pianists for contemporary music in Rio and in Brazil. What is nice about this trio is the fact that the idea for it happened at a concert by Preludio 21. This is something makes me really enthused the fact that, even without meaning to, we are in fact influencing music in Rio de Janeiro. We had invited Paulo Passos and Sara Cohen to play a concert with us, and Paulo was not able to, unfortunately, and so we invited Thiago Tavares, and at the concert at the CCJF, Waleska, who is the wife of Thiago, and a hornist, was present, and everyone was excited about the idea of forming a trio. And now the trio is commissioning pieces from various composers, and I am very happy to have been composing for them.
TM: The premiere of the work was at a concert by Preludio 21?
SRO: Yes, in September 2009, and later they played it again at a concert at Finep.
TM: Will they record it?
SRO: Theres nothing set in stone yet, but I am negotiating with them. I will be marking my fortieth birthday in October, and fifteen years as a composer in 2011. I am expecting to release some CDs in 2011, and the first one will be a disc with works including piano. There will be one piece for piano solo Atonas but it will also include Jacarandá, the Study on Alban Berg, the Suite 8 Anos, with Laura Campos de Oliveira and Ruth Serrão, the Duo Barrenechea playing A Véspera do Fim
TM: You have a piece for an unusual ensemble twelve trombones. Brazil has a fine brass tradition, but not so many trombone choirs. How did this piece happen?
SRO: Preludio 21 was having a meeting at UniRio. When the meeting ended, there was a rehearsal of the UniRio trombone choir, called UniBones, which is directed by João Luis Areias. We loved the sonority, which was so powerful, and I couldnt restrain myself I impulsively went into the hall, and invited Areias and the group to do a concert with Preludio 21. The invitation was in 2008, for a concert in 2009. He accepted, and asked for pieces in 8 parts for the 12 trombonists. Since the number 12 is very attractive for musicians (since we have twelve notes) I wanted to have each trombonist play a separate part, and so my piece is in twelve parts. The trick in the music is that I imagined a big electric sign, with various light bulbs. You may see a design that seems to be moving, but it is just an illusion based on what turns off and on. And that is why the title of the piece is Luz e Sombra (Light and Dark). I have each one of the trombones only playing a single note. The sound depends on which trombones are playing, and which are not.
TM: There were brass bands of peasants in Russia based on the same idea.
SRO: This idea also suggested itself to me when I saw my friend Marcio Conrad directing a bell choir, with each player responsible for two notes. The first movement, Luz, works with this idea; the second movement, E (with the subtitle of penumbra) is the lyrical moment of the piece, and less connected to the structure; and in the third movement, Sombra, the theme is present precisely in the instrument that is NOT playing. There are eleven trombones playing at the same time, and my theme is given to the trombone that is not heard. The piece was premiered at UniRio, and then repeated on the series of Preludio 21 at CCJF. In November it will be repeated again on the series of Preludio 21.
TM: Angico is something you wrote for Melomanie. Cores, your previous work for their full ensemble, belongs to a critical phase when you were reconsidering your work as a composer, but at this point you have come out the other end.
SRO: If I were to define my phase today, I would say that I have been working with music with a dramatic component, and with emotion. I am in one of the most personal moments that I have experienced. Angico talks about my country home in Teresópolis, and also refers to the series of piece named for trees. Angico is a tree, and I relate in this piece the story of the construction of my house. When we bought the piece of land, it was ugly my mother bought the property without seeing it first, and later we decided to build the house. So the first movement is Construction. The house is called Angico, because there was an Angico, which has since died, but at the time was large and beautiful in the front of the property. And then the electric company said that the Angico had to be cut down, because its branches would damage the wires. And we fought with the electric company, and the Angico was not cut down. The house, Angico, is a very mystical place. Various people who have gone there have seen things, have heard things, have been possessed by spirits it is a place that has a very strong energy, and there is a cigana [spirit of a gypsy woman] who protects the house. This is not something that was intentional, but Angico is an anagram for cigano. There is a theme that is used in candomblé, which is a cigana theme, and I used it in Angico, as if to say that the one who prevented the Angico being cut down, and who is always protecting the house and nature, is the cigana. Often people also talk about the spirits of children, so I used some folk themes related to children to create a climate of protection for children, protection by the cigana a spiritual orientation for the work. I thought it was interesting to do this for a work that would be premiered in the context of another culture entirely, which has no context for this universe. I have been trying to show my universe, from my most personal emotional universe, to the cultural universe of my country, to other people. Its interesting, because there was a certain resistance to the piece on the part of the group. I went to the first rehearsal, and people were uncertain about what they were supposed to be doing, or not, and wanted to hear the original forms of the themes that I was using, and I said, No this is my music. My music is not the original theme. But I think it would be interesting for them to visit Angico afterwards.
TM: For an audience outside Brazil, which is familiar neither with the culture nor the area, please say a little about the site. Its on a rural road, unpaved, seven miles off the paved road, with an amazing view of the mountains. And with regard to the cigana, she is not one of the major entities or orixás in Afro-Brazilian religion, but stands somewhat apart.
SRO: With regard to the place, it is my personal paradise, close to the city of Teresópolis, in the second district, in the middle of the mountains, in the middle of the forest. It is where I go to see monkeys, to hear the birds sing, to see lizards, an infinite number of insects .for me it is a place where I can recharge my energies. A calm place, a silent place, where it seems like you are living in a different century. Often the electricity is out. You are in a reality that those of us who live in a big city like Rio de Janeiro are not accustomed to.
TM: You have horses and horse-drawn carriages .
SRO: Its a region where there are a lot of farms raising race-horses. The labor relations are often very old-fashioned, with the workers very humble, without awareness of their rights .
TM: A little bit of Piauí
SRO: Exactly. A little bit of Piauí in the state of Rio de Janeiro. From my veranda, we can all see sorts of insects and birds and trees a peaceful spot. With regard to the cigana, I am not an expert, but there is a oriental candomblé, in which you have the presence of entities of ciganas, spirits which are closer to humans, which are more terrestrial, more material
TM: and so they can give you a sort of protection that doesnt come from the orixás, from example. Something more personal, something closer to you.
SRO: Yes. It is from these entities who are closer to humans that you are accustomed to ask for material things.
TM: Like a godfather.
SRO: A guide. Everyone has their own guide, at the same time that you have the very high entities, the orixás, who are the gods in the Yoruba pantheon.
TM: Your first piece for 2010, the year when you will turn 40 in October, is called Umas Coisas do Coração [Some things from the heart]. For me, almost any music from Brazil could have that title. Any piece of yours is certainly a piece from the heart. Why does this piece in particular have that title?
SRO: As I said, I am going through a phase where my music is very emotional and very personal. I wanted to talk about my heart in particular not something for humanity in general. The piece has three movements the first is Agitated, the second is To Be Resolved, and the third is Always Open. The first talks about my heart, which is so agitated, which is always in love, always seeking a new passion I am always passionate about something I am fueled by passion. The second movement shows the direct influence of Mark Hagerty in the score it reads I wish I were Mark Hagerty. I was very impressed with a new piece of his that I heard in January at the premiere of Angico in Wilmington, Delaware After Duchamp. Its a piece for harpsichord, and one of the movements has a chord which is repeated incessantly. I did the same thing in this piece, which is for solo guitar, in talking about emotions to be resolved. There is a low A, and a high E, which show that many things have happened, but I have not still reached a resolution. The first chord of the movement, and the last one as well, are the things in my heart which are unresolved. In the third movement, in order to show that my heart is always open, I used many open chords.
TM: Was the fact that the work was for guitar something that led you to write something more intimate?
TM: The piano could be just as intimate for you.
SRO: And the symphony orchestra as well. I always work with commission, and a concert date in mind. In this case, this was the music that I needed to write at that moment. Generally, the non-musical idea is adapted to my musical necessities, and I create a structure in order to bring the two things together.
TM: Lets talk about Música Precisa. This title also comes from a pun. One might imagine that such a title would produce something dodecaphonic, highly structured but in fact its a bagatelle.
SRO: On March 5, National Music Day in Brazil, I did the final release concert for my CD Sem Espera, after four years doing concerts around the world. At the concert I met a violinist Isadora Scheer. I liked her and her husband a lot. Her husband is a guitarist and was already studying my Imaginary Suite for guitar. I was invited to a birthday party for her shortly afterwards, and I needed a present, and wanted to make an homage to this new friend. She is known as Isa, and so the music is música pra Isa. There is another meaning as well, since precisa, in addition to meaning precise, also means to need, and I needed a piece of music to give. Its a bagatelle, a short and simple piece of music.
TM: The next work, Rubi, is part of the series of pieces named for stones, which includes beryl, agate, crystal and was written for the great trumpeter Nailson Simões.
SRO: It was a commission of his, and probably will be on his next CD with José Wellington the music was written for them both. It is an homage to my mother. Once more, I am in an emotional and personal moment. My mother was born at the Rua dos Rubis.
TM: What part of Rio?
SRO: Rocha Miranda.
TM: Say a little about Rocha Miranda.
SRO: I dont really know Rocha Miranda, but its very much in the suburbs.
TM: The suburbs of the suburbs, near the main line of the railroad.
SRO: where you can drive your car down the wrong side of the street, where people still put their chairs out on the sidewalks at the end of the afternoon, where you know people by their first names, where you walk to the bakery to buy bread every day. This is where I think you find the origin of the Carioca spirit.
TM: Of the Carioca in general?
TM: And of the song by Chico Buarque by that name.
SRO: I think we are all suburban. Suburban people who live by the ocean.
TM: Like Millor Fernandes, who now lives in Ipanema, but is from Meier.
SRO: Yes. This neighborhood spirit, the fact that Rio is at the same time both provincial AND cosmopolitan, is what makes Rio the city that it is. There s another detail my mother is a lawyer. In Brazil each profession has a ring, with the particular profession identified by the type of stone. For lawyers, the stone is a ruby.
TM: So in growing up where she did in Rocha Miranda, she was predestined to be a lawyer.
SRO: I am sure she never thought about that, but perhaps it was foreshadowing of what would come later. I used to play with her ruby ring a lot when I was a child. I created a superhero who needed to put on that ring in order to be transformed into his secret identity. So the ruby also brings me back to my childhood. The music talks about my mother, but about my childhood as well. Theres a spirit of play in the first movement, called Childhood; theres a lyric movement, called Mother; and the third movement is called Hardness and Shine. When I wrote Berilo, I worked a lot with the coefficients of hardness and shine of the stone. Here I only wanted to use these as metaphors, because I think that this is what I inherited from her. We both are short; we both are survivors; and at the same time we really shine. We provoke envy on the part of a lot of people, but our hardness means that we can endure the envy, and we never stop shining.
TM: You are compact.
SRO: At the same time, we are sweet, we tear up when we remember our mothers, when we remember our friends, and are able to do whatever is necessary for the person by our side. So the third movement is the place where my mother and I meet.
TM: Lets close with the most recent piece Cartas de Amor. Another piece about love, this one written for the new music ensemble at UniRio, GNU.
SRO: It is written for a large ensemble soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar and piano four-hands. The name comes from a poem by Fernando Pessoa, and the poem made a big impression on me, because Maria Bethânia recited the poem on an LP I listened to as a child. Something that really bothers me about people in the contemporary world is cynicism. People devalue emotion, make fun of emotion people who are more emotional, like you and myself, seem to belong to an underclass. People laugh when we cry. They make fun of the fact that we are moved by little things. The most important verse in Cartas de Amor is todas as cartas de amor são ridículas [all love letters are ridiculous]. At the same time that Pessoa is talking about love letters, he is talking about how ridiculous they are, and how people make fun of them. What did in the music, making use of the dramatic possibilities, which have been so important for me, is talk about cynicism, about the devaluation of emotion, how it makes me feel indignant, sad, annoyed. The soprano sings a beautifully lyric theme todas as cartas de amor são and all the musicians stop playing and shout ridículas with an aggressive chord .and she continues lyrically until she cant bear being made fun of, and shouts herself. The piece continues to fall apart, and finally there is a sort of mutiny against the soprano.
TM: I would say, just to put things in context, that one of the charms of the city of Rio is that it is, at the same time, both sentimental, ridiculous, and cynical. The Carioca is cynical on the surface, but deep, deep down, he is extremely emotional and sentimental.
SRO: We are capable of making fun of the people that we love, as long as it doesnt really hurt, because, after all, we all feel the same way. However, I do see people allowing more of their cynical side to come out, and less of their emotional side. That is what disturbs me. Balance is key. Too much of the emotional side can be tacky, kitschy. So if society is now sliding in the direction of cynicism, I make a point of writing an emotional piece to bring things back toward equilibrium once more.
To read another interview with Sérgio Roberto de Oliveira, you can visit Opus.